Ser and Estar: The Definitive Guide

Rob Ashby

Rob Ashby

The Spanish Obsessive

Few verbs have attracted as much attention and hours of study as the two “copular” verbs in Spanish: Ser and Estar. To an English native speaker, it seems bizarre to have two verbs which both mean “to be”, and distinguishing between them and their uses can be a major challenge in studying Spanish. Yet, even for linguists, these two verbs have been a source of much controversy. Here, we look at different ways of approaching these two verbs, as well as some of the problems in the classic teaching methods for these verbs.

First, we should note that Spanish does not have just two verbs which translate as “to be”. We can also use “sentar”, “verse”, “salir”, and a whole host of others in certain contexts to mean “be”. However, ser and estar tend to be of prime focus as these verbs are so frequently used. There are various ways to approach using these verbs – some of which are universally accepted, and some of which have caused controversy. We’ll start with the universally accepted approaches:

When you only use ser

With time phrases:

  • Ya son las cinco
  • It’s already 5 o clock
  • Hoy es viernes
  • Today is Friday
  • Cuál es la fecha? Es el diez
  • What’s the date? It’s the tenth


To identify or equate:

  • El es de Argentina
  • He’s from Argentina
  • Es de madera
  • It’s made of wood


With impersonal expressions:

  • Es importante
  • It’s important
  • Es muy dificil
  • It’s very difficult

When you only use estar

As an auxiliary verb, used to indicate progression:

  • Está andando
  • He/she is walking


To indicate location:

  • Estamos en Londres
  • We are in London

Ways to remember

Most textbooks recommend remembering the uses of ser and estar, and there are various devices to help students with this. I came across a good acronym (on this Russian site) for using both ser and estar. The uses of ser can be memorised using the acronym “DOCTOR”:

  • Date/description
  • Occupation
  • Characteristic
  • Time
  • Origin
  • Relationship


“Estar” can be remembered using the acronym “PLACE”:

  • Position
  • Location
  • Action
  • Condition
  • Emotion

When you can use either ser or estar

However, there are cases when you can use both ser and estar, and this changes the meaning of the sentence:

  • La casa fue destruida
  • The house was destroyed = Focus on the action of being destroyed
  • La casa estuvo destruida
  • The house was destroyed = Focus on the resulting state of the house following its destruction
  • Madrid es allí
  • Madrid is there (equating the noun with the place, for example “Madrid is in Spain”: “Madrid es en España”
  • Madrid está allí
  • Madrid is there (focus on location of the place – imagine someone pointing at Madrid and saying this)

But… Why?

Good question. There is clearly something that links all of the occasions that you use ser which is for some reason separate for all of the occasions that estar is used. Spanish speakers don’t have to learn these rules for when to use either ser or estar, so there must be some underlying attributes for when these verbs are used.

One of the main approaches taken by course books to these two verbs was actually first proposed in 1847 by Andrés Bello in “Gramática de la lengua castellana” and, as we’ll see, is in serious need of updating. Bello proposed that ser denotes permanent qualities, whereas estar indicates more transient, impermanent states. That’s why you get sentences such as “es inglés” (he’s English – “Englishness” is a permanent quality), and “Estamos en Londres” (“we’re in London” – temporarily, as we can move any time). This works (more or less) for a large number of instances, and is also a good introduction for how to use these verbs. Look at the following list, and think about why estar or ser is used in each case:

  • Es de Barcelona
  • He/she is from Barcelona. This is a quality of a person, rather than a state – someone’s origin is not subject to change.
  • Ella está en Barcelona
  • She is in Barcelona. This is temporary – tomorrow she may move to somewhere else, so we use estar.
  • La silla es verde
  • The chair is green. The “green-ness” is the inherent characteristic of the chair, hence verb ser.


This is also useful for explaining when both verbs can be used but the choice changes the meaning of the phrase:

  • Está borracho
  • He/she is drunk. However, this is temporary, and tomorrow he’ll be sober.
  • Es un borracho
  • He/she is a drunk. Using the verb ser indicates an essential characteristic of a person, indicating in this case that someone is a drunk.


So far, so good. It’s useful, and can help to explain many differences in meaning. However, how are we to decide whether something is a temporary characteristic or a permanent essence? Why should someone being a drunk be an essence, rather than a characteristic? These are philosophical and metaphysical judgements, and will vary for each person. It’s not good enough as an explanation – and it doesn’t even work in some cases. Look at some of the following sentences:

  • Está muerto
  • He/she is dead. Using the verb estar would indicate a temporary state according to this viewpoint. Are we to assume people will come back to life? Does this pre-suppose the afterlife? Why can’t someone be dead in essence?
  • Qué frío está el helado!
  • How cold is this ice cream!? But, by definition, ice cream will be cold – that’s surely a permanent state, yet the verb supposedly indicates temporary state. (Ok, so ice cream can melt and become warm, but then it won’t be ice cream anymore 😉 )

The choice is NOT automatic

Perhaps my biggest problem with the traditional approach is that we assume that the choice of verb is determined by what it is referring to. The sky’s blueness, for example, we would normally consider a characteristic. Accorrding to the traditional rules, then, we should automatically use ser. However, if we say “el cielo es azul”, we mean something different to “el cielo está azul”. In English, we could translate the first phrase as “the sky is blue”, and the second as “the sky is blue [as opposed to grey]”. The choice of verb we make depends on the nuance we want to convey, and is not automatically cued by whatever we’re talking about.


It’s all about your point of view

One of the most effective treatments of these two verbs was given by Navas Ruiz in 1963, who first theorised that the choice of verb is not down to metaphysics or philosophy, but the point of view that the speaker wants to express. Ser sets up an atemporal relationship, whereas estar sets up a temporal relationship. That means that when we use ser, we are abstracting the meaning from anything to do with time and duration. We could imagine it as a simple “=” sign. Estar establishes the possession of an attribute for a period of time. If it is affected by time, that means it can stop, be interrupted, and mutate. An example he gives is for the sentence “la nieve es blanca” vs “la nieve está blanca” (both translated as “the snow is white”). In the first example, the speaker is attributing whiteness to the snow, and in that moment it coudn’t be anything else, or at least the speaker is not concerned about whether it will become anything else – it is atemporal. In the second instance, the speaker is emphasising that the snow is white but is susceptible to change – it could become dirty or less white. It’s the difference in meaning in English when we say a)”Snow is white” b)”Look how white the snow is today (as opposed to yellow, for example 😉 )”.


Location, location, location

Choosing ser or estar with location often presents difficulties. Typically, when locating something physical we will use estar, as it’s accepted that location is temporary:

  • Estamos a 50 kilometros de Bogotá
  • We’re 50 kilometres from Bogotá
  • Nuestra casa está en la calle quinta
  • Our house is on 5th Street


Events usually take the verb ser, however:

  • La fiesta es en el parque
  • The party is in the park

I was long confused by why this might be the case, and asked the good people at Word Reference on this thread. It seems that even among native speakers there is disagreement over what’s correct. Ser is generally accepted for events, with the principle reason being that an event is not seen as having physical or spacial properties, and is not defined as such. It exists more conceptually: If we ask “show me the play”, we can’t point to an object and say “there it is”. We can point to the theatre or the actors in it, but not the concept of a play as it doesn’t have any physical existence. Therefore, it is “atemporal” in a sense, so ser is usually used.



You can learn how to use these two verbs by learning lists of where they are and aren’t used, or you can try to go deeper to really understand the essence of how they work. Approaching it more holistically as in the second case, you will have a better understanding of what these verbs really mean and will hopefully be better equipped to use them. It’s also very useful to learn a few examples of how each verb is used, and as you see each instance, ask yourself whether the speaker is referring to something “temporal” or “atemporal”. Good luck, and let us know any questions in the comments below!

We hope this was a useful guide. If you’ve learnt anything from it, please feel free to share using the buttons on the left-hand side – we’d love a tweet or some facebook love! What are some other ways that you’ve approached these two verbs?

15 Responses

  1. Hi there!
    Very good explanation, I know Ser/Estar are quite tricky for most learners of Spanish.
    I’d like to point out two things though:
    I’ve never heard “la casa estuvo destruida” before, and it doesn’t sound correct to me, to refer to a temporal state, I guess most people would use the verb “Permanecer”. Likewise I wouldn’t say “Madrid es en España”, or “Madrid es alli” since you are pointing to the location of the city (and therefore you need to use Estar as you explained before) you could, however, say “Madrid ES una ciudad de España” or “Para Madrid es por ahi” (and this one is very specific,you could only say it when pointing the road or direction.

    I’m a native Spanish speaker from Spain, so I’m not sure if people in South America would say “Estuvo destruida” or “Madrid es alli”.
    Besides these two minor things, very good and complete explanation 🙂

    1. Hola Sergi!
      Thanks for the encouragement! I have to say, ser and estar are really strange and complex ideas for English speakers. I put this article together because I thought that these verbs aren’t very well taught – teachers normally hand students either a long list of “uses” of each verb which they have to memorise, or try to convey the idea of ser = permanence, and estar = temporary, which doesn’t really get to the core of these verbs either.

      Anyway, the two examples you pulled out I’ve definitely seen and heard before – I’ll try to dig out the original context 😉
      Even among native Spanish speakers, meanings and uses of ser and estar cause a lot of contention!

      Gracias! Rob

  2. Very welcome Bob,

    Just two things. La casa fue destruida uses the passive voice, which can only have Ser as copulative verb. It seems that in some areas of South America the use of the Preterito Perfecto (estuvo) is more common than the use of the Imperfecto (estaba). Note that you will need to add a second part when using estuvo/estaba so the sentence has sense “Estuvo destruida, hasta que la repararon” etc, otherwise it would feel incomplete.

    The other thing is the use of Ser, in sentences to refer location, it can only be used for temporal events, La fiesta es a las ocho etc.

    Madrid es alli, would only be correct if it was written this way “Madrid, es alli” (with a comma) or to indicate where things come from “Madrid es la fuente de la movida”, you could also say “Madrid es por alli” to indicate the way to follow.

    And then, I suppose there is always the thing between how people talk, and the way they were supposed to talk. English is my second language, and I could say “I’m loving it” because it comes naturally to me, even though is not grammatically correct, people in the wordreference thread where talking about what they thought it was correct, but the grammar would had been more strict in the uses of ser/estar 🙂
    In case of doubt I use this which covers both , the South american and european Spanish. Or alternatively, this one where you can ask questions to spanish teachers.

    Again, very nice blog, It’s always nice to see people that enjoy learning spanish 🙂

    1. Great article, thanks! And thanks Sergi too! Some really useful comments… I would keep using ‘I’m loving it…’ McDonalds does, why shouldn’t we? I think it’s a great example of how language is continually changing! 🙂

    2. At the moment it’s proving more challenging than my learning Mandarin with the difference between “ser” and “estar”. I understand the reason behind them both one is permanent and the other temporary. The acronym is really helpful. I’m trying to get off the ground helping my year 7 son for school and I can understand why this part is difficult. I want to teach him 98% properly and now we “estuvo” and “estaba” which I now need to look up. You are right in that it is never explained properly. Plus are the verbs flexible in that some people say for example “estamos frio” (we are cold) and then sometimes “nosotros estamos fro” meaning the same (we are cold). A bit like “yo soy frio” (I am cold) or “soy frio” (I am cold). What, can one decide to take of the pronoun because the sentence implies obviously who it’s referring to – is that how it works. However, I’m on my quest to get my son speaking Spanich because ordinary conversation we both sort of started picking it up in Lanzarote but having to know it in the grammatical sense and needing to pass for school is another ball game. We are going to Spain this year in August, so my intention is for us to know how to grammatically string a sentence at elementary level together by then. Been at it since 7 pm and now it’s almost 11 pm, whilst my son sleeps I’m doing all the work to simplify it to him.

  3. hello! so I decided to learn Spanish just a few days back. I’m pretty fluent with French. though still learning more. thanks to you guys Spanish seems interesting and not very difficult. 🙂

  4. If you don’t understand why Spanish has two verbs that mean “to be” or what’s even with their uses, think of this:

    Ser came from the Latin word sedeo which means “to sit.” Think of the uses of ser as sedentary.
    Estar came from the Latin word stare (pronounced STAH-ray) which means “to stand.” Think of uses of estar as what mean figuratively or literally standing.

    1. I’ve never liked the “temporal” explanation for estar. My favorite understanding is that ser is for the very essence of the thing, while estar is for something that is true but is a state relative to something else, whether time, place, what you might otherwise expect, etc. The book Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish gives a great explanation, and the author uses the “está muerto” example as follows (from memory):

      Being dead is a lasting experience, but it’s not part of the person’s being, it’s a state. At the person’s funeral, you don’t hear the speaker say “Bob was a good person, an upstanding person, and a dead person.”

      Being dead is the state the person is in and (unless they are resurrected) always will be. You can even see the word “state” in the verb “estar.”

  5. The temporal/atemporal concept doesn’t explain está muerto unless you believe in an afterlife. I wonder if there is a historical relgious context.

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